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Just prior to the 5 November every year, children standing eagerly next to an effigy of Guy Fawkes sat in the garden wheelbarrow used to be a common sight. 

If they were not too shy - and they generally were not - they would usually run at you with open palms asking '..penny for the guy…' in a hope to secure coinage to put towards a handful of cheap fireworks.

An effigey of Guy Fawkes is still burned on bonfires across England in recognition of his part in the failed 'Gunpowder Plot' of 1605, but it turns out that Fawkes didn't devise or lead the plot to assassinate James I. 

So why is he still singled out as one of British history's greatest villains more than 400 years after his death?

Guy Fawkes was born in April 1570 in York. Although his immediate family were all Protestants - the accepted religious practice in England at the time - his maternal grandparents were Catholics, who refused to attend Protestant services.

Guy's father died when he was eight, and his widowed mother was re-married to a Catholic, Dionis Baynbrigge. It was these early influences that were to forge Fawkes' convictions as an adult.

Guy Fawkes and Spain

By the time he was 21 Fawks had sold the estate his father had left him and left for Europe to fight for Catholic Spain against the Protestant Dutch republic in the Eighty Years War. His military career went well and by 1603 he had been recommended for a captaincy. He strangely also adopted the Italian variant of his name, and became known as 'Guido'.

In the same year, he travelled to Spain to petition the king, Philip III, for support in fomenting a rebellion in England against the "heretic" James I. 

Despite the fact that Spain and Britain were still, technically, at war, Philip refused. "A man highly skilled in matters of war"

Personally, Fawkes was an imposing man. His former school friend Oswald Tesimond, who had become a Jesuit Catholic priest, described him as "pleasant of approach and cheerful of manner, opposed to quarrels and strife ... loyal to his friends".

Tesimond also claimed Fawkes was "a man highly skilled in matters of war", while the historian Antonia Fraser described him as "a tall, powerfully built man, with thick reddish-brown hair, a flowing moustache in the tradition of the time, and a bushy reddish-brown beard... a man of action ... capable of intelligent argument as well as physical endurance, somewhat to the surprise of his enemies."

Fawkes is drawn into the plot It was while on campaign fighting for Spain in Flanders that Fawkes was approached by Thomas Wintour and asked to join what would become known as the Gunpowder Plot, under the leadership of Robert Catesby.

His expertise with gunpowder gave him a key - and very perilous - role in the conspiracy. Fawkes was to source and ignite the explosive. But 18 months of careful planning was foiled with just hours to go, when he was arrested at midnight on 4 November 1605 beneath the House of Lords. 

Thirty-six barrels of gunpowder were found stacked in the cellar directly below where the king would have been sitting for the opening of parliament the next day.

The foiling of the plot had been expertly engineered by James I's spymaster, Robert Cecil. Fawkes was subjected to various tortures, including the rack. Torture was technically illegal, and James I was personally required to give a licence for Fawkes to endure its ravages.

While just the threat of torture was enough to break the resolve of many, Fawkes withstood two days of the most terrible pain before he confessed all. 

Famously, his signature on his confession was that of a shattered and broken man, the ill-formed letters that spelled his name told the story of a someone who was barely able to hold a quill. His fortitude throughout had impressed James I, who said he admired Fawkes' "Roman resolution".

Fawkes was sentenced to the traditional traitors' death of being 'hanged, drawn and quartered'. However, just before his time came, Guy Fawkes jumped from the gallows, breaking his own neck thereby avoiding the horror of being cut down while still alive, having his testicles cut off and his stomach opened and his guts spilled before his eyes. His lifeless body was hacked into quarters and his remains sent to "the four corners of the kingdom" as a warning to others.

The burning of the 'guy'

Guy Fawkes instantly became a national bogeyman and the embodiment of Catholic extremism. It was a propaganda coup for the Protestant English and served as a pretext for further repression of Catholics that would not be completely lifted for another 200 years.

It is perhaps surprising that Fawkes and not the charismatic ring-leader Robert Catesby was remembered, but it was Fawkes who was caught red-handed under the Houses of Parliament, it was Fawkes who refused to speak under torture, and it was Fawkes who was publicly executed. Catesby, by contrast, was killed evading capture and was never tried.

Through the centuries the Guy Fawkes legend has become ever-more entrenched, and by the 19th Century it was his likeness that was being placed on the bonfires that were lit annually to commemorate the failure of the plot.

For related articles click onto:
LONDON: Buckingham Palace
LONDON: Cleopatra's Needle
LONDON: The Houses of Parliament
LONDON: The London Eye
LONDON: The Tower of London
LONDON: Who was Guy Fawkes?
ENGLAND: Hever Castle
ENGLAND: Knole House - the Ghosts!
ENGLAND: Sissinghurst
ENGLAND: What is the Eden project?
ENGLAND: What is Stonehenge?
ENGLAND: Where is Stonehenge?

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